Posted tagged ‘Abomination of Desolation’

Mark 13:14-25. No, Peter really wasn’t drunk.

August 5, 2011

 “But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be let the reader understand, then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the housetop not go down, nor enter his house, to take anything out, and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not happen in winter. For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, and never will be. And if the Lord had not cut short the days, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he shortened the days. And then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand. (v13-23)

But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”(v24-25)

We’ve already looked at the first half of Jesus’ long speech to his disciples on the Mount of Olives. They’ve spent a week in and around the Temple, and Jesus has just left it, pronouncing the whole show to be all-but worthless, and predicting that it will be destroyed. The disciples, understandably, are extremely curious about this. They know that if the Temple is destroyed, all bets are off for Israel. They already expected Jesus to be crowned and to establish God’s kingdom from Jerusalem as the Messianic King. Now they see a connection between that, and the fall of the Temple. Surely, God is about to unleash his wrath on unbelieving Israel, destroy their Temple, and establish his king in righteousness to rule from Zion’s holy hill…

But when they ask for a timescale for all this, Jesus tells them to expect suffering and tribulation instead of victory. He tells them that they will be hated by everyone, imprisoned, and had up on rotten charges in court. In these verses, he also warns them that when Jerusalem falls, they shouldn’t stick around to enjoy the victory party- they should flee, and not even wait long enough to grab a coat on the way out.

  1. What (or who) is the abomination of desolation, and where ought he not to be standing?
  2. What makes the suffering that will take place in those days so bad? Jesus says that it is worse than anything that ever has been or ever will be. Is he serious?
  3. Why shouldn’t the disciples believe anyone who claims to have seen, or actually to be, the Christ in those days?
  4. When Jesus talks about the days following “that tribulation”, he uses language about the sun and moon being darkened. What tribulation is he talking about? And is there any reason not to take the cosmic language literally?
  5. No, but seriously, isn’t it a bit weak to waffle on about “cosmic metaphor”? You sound like a liberal.
  6. What big lessons should we learn from this passage?


1.      What (or who) is the abomination of desolation, and where ought he not to be standing?

First, we need to understand when and where this will happen. Having warned the disciples about the days when he will no longer be with them (v5-13), Jesus then (v14-23) prophesies definite events that will take place during that period. The warnings of verses 14-15 are very clearly specific to the local context: Jesus speaks of those who are in “Judea”. He assumes that people could be out “on the housetop”- which is not something we can do here in the rainy North-West of England with our pitched roofs. The whole passage deals with events within the lives of the apostles. It can’t be about the end of all things. What would be the point of fleeing Jerusalem for safety if the whole world were about to be consumed by fire?

Jesus says that people should run for cover when the disciples (“you”) see the abomination of desolation standing where it does not belong. Mark then adds the editorial comment, “let the reader understand”. Mark is signalling to his readers that Jesus is speaking in “code” here, but he expects his readers to “get” the significance of the phrase. From the immediate context, we can see that it describes something which will signal a time of great upset, so great that the disciples should drop everything and flee.

So what event is Jesus talking about here? How do we understand this reference to the “abomination of desolation”, which Mark seems to think his readers will understand?

Look at the prophecy of Daniel. Daniel uses the phrase to refer to some future event which will occur in the Temple, and which will desecrate it utterly (8:13; 9:27, 11:31, 12:11). Both Jesus and the disciples would have known Daniel, and so to understand the phrase, we need to understand something of that book.

Daniel is a book with racy chunks of narrative which all children in Christian families know from Sunday School (what churchy child has never had a lesson on “Daniel in the Lions’ Den”?)  and equally racy but slightly confusing sections of prophecy and dreams. Daniel interpreted the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar, and also had dreams of his own concerning the future.  In Daniel, we read about dreams of a statue with a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of iron and clay; dreams of a succession of different beasts coming out of the sea; and dreams about other animals and powerful horns. These were dreams about great world empires and rulers to be raised up by God. After Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian golden head, there came the Persian arms of silver. After Persia, flourished the Greek empire under Alexander the Great. After Greece, came brutal Rome.

Between Alexander’s death (323 B.C.) and the rise of Rome, the Greek empire was split into pieces and various successors to Alexander reigned in different parts. Israel, which is where our interest lies, was ruled first by the Ptolemies of Egypt, and then by the Seleucids of Syria. Antiochus Epiphanes, a Seleucid king, began to interfere with religious affairs in his Jewish territory. He treated the office of High Priest as a political appointment within his gift, rather than an hereditary office by Divine law. When some of his illegitimate “High Priests” began to fight among themselves, Antiochus assaulted Jerusalem, pillaged the Temple, and led captive the women and children. He then embarked on a programme of zealous Hellenisation in Israel. In effect, this meant the persecution of faithful Jews. Sacrifice was forbidden. Festivals and Sabbaths were banned. Circumcision was made illegal. In 168 B.C, Antiochus erected an altar to Zeus over the altar of burnt offering in the Temple, and sacrificed a pig on it. This was seen as an act of sacrilege so appalling that it invited the abandonment of the Temple by God and his people.

Has anyone ever dipped into the apocryphal books of 1 and 2 Maccabees? They contain accounts of this rebellion, and interestingly, the phrase “abomination of desolation” is applied to something Antiochus did on the altar of burnt offering (1 Maccabees 1:54; 6:7). The author of the book plainly (and I think correctly) regarded this as a vindication of Daniel’s prophecy.

Jesus and the disciples will not only know Daniel, but will also know what Antiochus did, and will almost certainly know 1 Maccabees. And so when Jesus himself prophesies a further fulfilment of Daniel, it is a further profaning of the Temple of which Jesus speaks. The disciples (and Mark’s readers) will understand the reference Jesus makes. It is like us hearing somebody say, “When you see the conquerors goose-stepping down the Champs Élysées (let the listener understand), run for the hills”. Westerners of our generation would immediately be thinking back to the events of 1940 and the fall of Paris to the Nazis, but we’d understand that the speaker was talking about a future defeat, a quick surrender, and a conquering army marching down the central street of the captured capital. Depending on the context of the remark, we’d apply it appropriately.

Jesus is talking about the coming siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple by the Roman forces. In A.D. 70, the Jews rebelled against Rome, and the Romans crushed the rebellion. Jerusalem was placed under siege, and the Zealots gained temporary control of the Temple. They allowed murder to take place inside the courts, and installed a clown, Phanni, as high priest. Since Jesus refers to the abomination of desolation as a “he”, standing where he shouldn’t, it is quite possible that Phanni is in view. But whatever the exact fulfilment of the phrase, it is about the desecration of the Temple, and everyone would have understood that.


2.      What makes the suffering that will take place in those days so bad? Jesus says that it is worse than anything that ever has been or ever will be. Is he serious?

This desecration of the Temple will mark a time of great trouble in Judea. The moment they see it, the people had better flee to the mountains. Jesus warns that this disaster will come suddenly (v15-16). While many of the Jews will be fleeing into the city and Temple for protection, Jesus urges his disciples to flee the other way. If a man is up on his flat roof, then he should run down the stairs at the side of his house, and head for the hills. Going down the other stairs into his house, even if it is only to snatch up some food for the journey, could mean death. And if a man is in the fields, he too should run, not even going to pick up his outer garment, designed to keep off the cold at night. That garment would come in handy for a refugee, but the urgency will be too great. The destruction will be terrible and the people will become shelterless wanderers, so woe on those who are nursing children and have to deal with their infants in the flight. And woe especially if this should come in winter with harsh weather as well. It will be dreadful for the Jewish people- worse than anything before or after in the history of the world.

Some take issue with this, and cite the holocaust as the obvious example of something far worse for the Jewish people than anything the Romans dealt out in A.D. 70. But although the suffering of the holocaust ought not to be diminished, whether or not it was worse than A.D. 70 depends on the yardstick you use to measure the events. And by the Bible’s yardstick, A.D. 70 was by far the more profound disaster. We tend to think about relative “badness” purely in terms of immediate human suffering. With that yardstick, perhaps the holocaust was worse- surely the death tolls were higher. Or using the yardstick of the intentions of the perpetrators, perhaps the Nazis were more evil than the Romans. But those are secular yardsticks. They measure things purely in terms of man- man’s suffering or man’s evil. If you put yourself into the mindset of a devout first century Jew, then nothing worse than A.D. 70 is conceivable. The desecration, robbing, and final destruction of the Temple, was the high-water mark of devastation. It wasn’t just about the suffering and humiliation- it was about the unavoidable fact that God had abandoned his people, and was fighting against them. It meant everything that the exile of 586 B.C. had meant and more. Read the death-poetry of Lamentations to get an idea of the depths of suffering- not only physical and mental, but spiritual too- that the exile to Babylon caused the Jews. There isn’t much that could compare with suffering like that. When the holocaust came, it wasn’t about the loss of the promised land; it wasn’t about God abandoning his Temple and his people. It was an horrible event, but measured with a theological yardstick; it just can’t carry the same weight as the fall of the Temple. 

And yet, says Jesus, as bad as the coming tribulation for the disciples may be, it won’t last forever. There will be an end to it for the sake of the chosen, whom God loves.


3.      Why shouldn’t the disciples believe anyone who claims to be, or to have seen, the Christ in those days?

Because they’d be wrong. He isn’t going to be there in those days. When the Romans come in force, the only sane option is escape. There would be carnage, and sufferings would be indescribably cruel, and, crucially, this would not mean that Messiah was about to appear.

The only reason why a sensible man might not flee, would be if he believed that God was going to defend Jerusalem- if the Messiah was going to arrive in the nick of time like the U.S. cavalry and drive the Injuns away. So Jesus makes a special point of saying that when this happens, nobody should be looking for the Christ, the anointed saviour, to show up. If anyone says that the Messiah has appeared, don’t believe it.

The statement in v21-23 looks like a repetition of Jesus’ earlier statement in v5-6; a warning against false Christs who will lead people astray. But this warning is made in the specific context of the siege of Jerusalem. This is connected with the warning to flee. There were those living in Jerusalem in A.D. 70 who predicted the coming of the Messiah. Jesus says they’ll say, “Look, here is the Christ!” And if the disciples at that time had believed that Jesus was coming back to defend the city, then they’d have stayed in Jerusalem to enjoy his protection. But Jesus is warning that he won’t be protecting Jerusalem from the Romans. If anyone claims to be the Messiah in that day, then they’re a liar and a fraud, no matter what magic tricks they’ve got up their sleeve. False messiahs will come and do fake signs and wonders to lead people astray, but they won’t stop the Romans and they won’t stop the destruction of the Temple. Figures like this did arise during the first Jewish-Roman war- try Googling “Simon Ben Giora”- but any who hoped in them, hoped in vain.

Jesus tells the disciples this ahead of time, so that they won’t be taken by surprise. And tradition has it that many of the Christians in Jerusalem did head for the hills when they realised that the Romans were coming, and so escaped with their lives.

Maybe it’s getting boring having the point hammered home, but Jesus cannot be talking about the end of all things, when flight will be useless (Rev 6:15-17).


 4.      When Jesus talks about the days following “that tribulation”, he uses language about the sun and moon being darkened. What tribulation is he talking about? And is there any reason not to take the cosmic language literally?

 Jesus says that in “those days, after that tribulation”, the sun will go dark, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the heavenly powers will be shaken. The “what tribulation is he talking about?” part is the easy bit. In v24, Jesus is following on from his comments about the fall of Jerusalem in v14-23. The fall of Jerusalem and the final destruction of the Temple are the tribulation in view. Those things took place in A.D. 70, as one might expect given that Jesus says (v30) that the disciples’ generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. But in these verses, Jesus says he is talking about events post-A.D. 70. The question remains, “exactly how long post- ?”  Jesus talks about falling stars and darkened sun, which sounds very much like the end of the world to our ears. But doesn’t he then say that “this generation will not pass away” until all these things have taken place?

I don’t think we can wriggle out of the force of what Jesus says in v30. He closes by saying that the things he’s been talking about will happen before the generation of the disciples passes from the earth. Some commentators manfully argue that the Greek word γευεα, usually translated as “generation”, actually means “race” or “people”, and so the time-span in view can be extended indefinitely, or at least for as long as there are still Jews around. But that doesn’t really wash. It certainly isn’t consistent with Mark’s and Jesus’ use of the word so far in the Gospel (Mark 8:12, 38; 9:19). In those verses, Jesus uses the word to mean his own generation, which is wicked and sinful like the generation that died in the wilderness. So on a face reading, these cosmic signs have already taken place- they happened during the disciples’ generation.

That leaves us with an obvious problem. The historical accounts of the fall of Jerusalem (mostly from Josephus) make no mention of un-natural darkness or falling stars. It seems very unlikely that these things could happen, and yet go un-noticed and unremarked in the histories. Did everybody blink at the same time, and miss it? Or did people think “ho-hum, there goes the sun. Oh, and the stars, too. Still, I’ve got more important things to write in my journal for today”?

To find the answer to the problem, we need to look back to OT, and see the way this cosmic language is used there. The OT reader who hears that language immediately thinks of Isaiah 13, and of similar passages (Isaiah 34:4; Ezekiel 32:7; Amos 8:9; Joel 2:1; 3:15).

In Isaiah 13, we have Isaiah’s oracle concerning the coming fall of Babylon. Isaiah says that “the Lord of hosts is mustering a host for battle.” He says that “the day of the Lord is near.” He says that God is stirring up the pitiless Medes against Babylon. He says that Babylon, in all her splendour and pomp, will be destroyed “like Sodom and Gomorrah when God overthrew them.” He’s talking about huge geo-political upheaval. Babylon would be the Top Nation of the time. It would seem unthinkable that the Babylonian Empire could be destroyed. As Isaiah says, it was the glory of kingdoms. But fall it did, almost overnight, defeated by the Medo-Persian Empire. The key thing for our purposes though, is that as Isaiah describes the fall of Babylon, he says that God declares “the sun will be dark at its rising and the moon will not give its light”; and “I will make the heavens tremble and the earth will be shaken out of its place” (Isaiah 13:10, 13). When we read of the sun being blotted out and the earth being shaken out of its place, that doesn’t sound an awful lot like the fall of an earthly empire, does it? It sounds like something an awful lot more serious. It sounds like the end of everything. And yet Isaiah is not talking about the end of the world, but about a change in world-government. He can talk about the fall of Babylon, and tell us that the heavens will tremble when it happens. In Isaiah, the celestial language is not meant to be about the enormous nuclear fusion reactions out in space. It is nations that are blotted out, not the sun.

Or take Ezekiel 32, where Ezekiel raises a lament over Pharaoh and Egypt, having just prophesied Egypt’s fall to Babylon, and the death of Pharaoh. In that chapter, God says to Pharaoh that when he destroys Pharaoh by the sword of the Babylonian king, then he will cover the heavens, make the stars dark, cover the sun with a cloud, stop the moon from giving its light, and make all of the bright lights of the heavens dark. But the astral disaster was a metaphor for the political downfall and death of Pharaoh. This is a characteristic of prophetic literature- cosmic sympathy and correlation. So in Isaiah and Ezekiel, so in Judges where the stars in their courses fight against Sisera (Judges 5:20), and so with the language Jesus uses here- almost quoting Isaiah.

 If you wonder whether this is all a little bit too obscure- whether the disciples would have understood that Jesus was talking about the fall of Jerusalem when he spoke of celestial disaster- just look at Peter’s use of Joel in Acts 2.

Joel had said to Israel that a day would come when God’s Spirit would be poured out “on all flesh; your sons and daughters shall prophesy; your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions… and I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:28, 30-32).

When Peter is there in Jerusalem at Pentecost, and the disciples begin to speak in foreign languages, which the Jews of the dispersion who are gathered for the festival can understand, some men in the crowd begin to accuse the disciples of drunkenness. Peter stands up and addresses the crowd, and he says that these men are not drunk- it’s too early in the morning anyway. Instead, says Peter, what is happening is a direct fulfilment of the prophecy of Joel- and he then quotes the chunk from Joel 2:28-32.

We can see immediately how the part about God’s Spirit being poured out is true of the disciples. But Peter doesn’t say that only that part is fulfilled. He talks about the sun being darkened as well. We have no hint that that is actually physically literally happening as Peter speaks. But the crowd don’t turn on him and say “The moon turning to blood, eh? Ha! You ARE drunk”. Again, this is only intelligible if we read the cosmic darkness as a metaphor for the downfall of a political body, and also take it as read that the Jewish crowd shared this understanding. In Acts 2, the political downfall is that of Israel; this outpouring of the Spirit sounds the death-knell for her national privilege. God is at that very moment speaking to her in tongues of foreigners because she wouldn’t listen to him speak in her own language, as Isaiah had predicted (Isa 28:11-13). God’s people are now no longer defined as those people who can trace their descent to Jacob, or who are circumcised and who keep the law like good Israelites. God’s people are now as defined as the body of people joined to God’s Messiah. No longer the natural children of Abraham, but all who share Abraham’s faith. This is the biggest change in God’s dealings with men since the fall, perhaps even since the creation. If cosmic language isn’t appropriate here, then where would it be?


 5.      No, but seriously, isn’t it a bit weak to waffle on about “cosmic metaphor”? You sound like a liberal.

Well, maybe. But I still think it has got to be about the events of the disciples lifetime; the changes in God’s purposes that separate the Old and New Covenants.

And there might even be a way for it to be both literal and about those changes, even though nobody at the time actually experienced a black-out. That way would involve answering questions like “So what actually is an angel?” and “What are the principalities and powers Paul talks about in Ephesians?”, and, “When Isaiah talks about the “Day Star, son of Dawn…You who said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven, above the stars of God’”, who does he mean?”

I don’t intend to do that now because

a) I’ve gone on long enough.

b) We’ve had more than enough weird for one day.

c) I’ve not really thrashed it out in my own mind yet.

But basically, I think that earth is an image of heaven, that realities on earth mirror the heavenly realities, and that there is a connection between earthly powers and heavenly powers- between stars, kings, nations, and angels. It would make admirable sense of all the passages quoted in the previous question. To most of us, brought up in a materialist society, it sounds very odd indeed. Perhaps the thing in our experience that it sounds most like is the ramblings of some New-Age hippie whose rational faculties have been fried by LSD. So I should probably add here that I am no more drunk than was Peter. And I have never taken, do not take at this time, and never intend to take, illegal drugs. But at least it stops me sounding like a liberal.


6.      What big lessons should we learn from this passage?

Jesus is in total control of all history. In the last week of his life, before he went to the cross, he knew what his death would accomplish. He knew that it would mean unimaginable pain for himself. He knew that it would mean turmoil and confusion for Israel. But in all that, with all those concerns in his mind, Jesus is still concerned for the good of his disciples. Anybody else, thinking about the rise and fall of nations, might think themselves justified in ignoring their friends. Any other man, knowing his own death to be near, might have been selfish and preoccupied. But Jesus, all through this chapter, is putting the needs of his disciples first. They will be confused and in danger. So Jesus tells them the things they will need to be able to remember.

He does these things because he is the image of the invisible God, and God cares for his elect and works all things together for their good. How can we doubt it, when we see Jesus?